Monday, April 16, 2012

Brigit Reviews (Series Four): Nonfiction, Popular (Saint)

Nonfiction, Popular (Saint):

Brigit, the Mary of the Gael”, from A Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory (1907) (Mention only.)
Saint Brigid of Ireland, Alice Curtayne (1954)
Saint Bride, Iain MacDonald (1992)
Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent, Noragh Jones (1994)
Rekindling the Flame: a Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Brigid of Kildare, Rita Minehan CSB (1999) (Pilgrimage Guidebook; Guided Meditation)
The Life of Saint Brigid, Anna Egan Smucker (2007)


This is a surprisingly small sampling, but I like all of these books. If you could read only one I would recommend Curtayne. Unless of course your purpose was to hurriedly prepare for a pilgrimage to Kildare, in which case go with Rekindling the Flame. Oh, heck. They all have different aims, so any could be the one for you, depending on your needs.

Curtayne’s book, written in the early 1950s, is a detailed and broad-ranging introduction to the saint which has no time for the goddess, yet which deepens our understanding of Brigit on many levels. It is told from the perspective of a believing Catholic—ironically, a rare view in the current Brigidine literature, and therefore doubly valuable for the insight it provides. It is the first full book I read about Brigit and remains a favourite.

MacDonald’s highly portable text contains translations of a late (15th century) Life of Saint Brigit from the Book of Lismore and an unusual prayer sometimes credited to Saint Columba (among others): the 9th century “Hail Brigid”. Perfect for a quiet walk in the countryside, reflecting on the saint.

Jones looks at length and in an accessible style at the traditional roles and rituals of the Scottish countrywoman, and Brigit appears throughout.

Minehan, herself a Brigidine nun, has written a moving and informative pilgrims’ guide to the Brigidine sites of Kildare town and its environs.

Smucker has pieced together a small and lively (and beautifully illustrated) primer on Saint Brigit as told through the late (15th century) Life of Brigit from the Leabhar Breac and customs and prayers related to her.

I had hoped to include “Brigit, the Mary of the Gael”, from A Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory (1907). Unfortunately, the copy I borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library in the ‘80s appears to have been withdrawn from the collection, and I don’t have another copy near to hand. Hence only a brief mention below.

Read More!

Brigit, the Mary of the Gael”, from A Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory (1907) John Murray, London.

Lady Gregory was an able and talented writer of the Celtic Twilight movement and the Abbey Theatre of Dublin, friend to such lights as W.B. Yeats and John Synge. I have reviewed her play The Story Brought by Brigid in the section on novels, poetry, and plays.

If you have a copy (or a pdf of your copy) you would like to contribute I’d enjoy reading it again, seeing what I missed before, and would be happy to include a review here, but it’s a bit late to ask for a review copy from the publisher.

It was of limited usefulness at a time when I was focussed only on the goddess, and looked at the saint from that restricted viewpoint. As I recall it was a collection of miracle stories gleaned from one or more of her Lives. I read it around the time I read Curtayne’s book, which I have reviewed here and which I preferred even then.

St. Brigid of Ireland, Alice Curtayne, 1954, Sheed and Ward, New York. 162 pp.

Already in her girlhood the lines of an exceptionally strong character are emerging. Her freedom won, the first use she made of it was to succour her mother, whose health was poor, but who was still engaged in the heavy labours of quern and churn.”
pg 28

Unfortunately long out of print and therefore pricey, you can try for a second hand copy. Beware of mould. The one I ordered from Ireland was horrific to breathe next to. Try to get it from the library if you can, perhaps on interlibrary loan.

This passionate and beautifully written book took me by surprise. I read it over twenty-five years ago, at a time when I was interested in Brigit the saint only as a lens through which to glimpse the goddess, and the book had little to offer me then. It altered in my mind into a quaint and archaic piece of Catholic introspection, confused with Lady Gregory's “Brigit, the Mary of the Gael”1. I’m happy to have returned to it at a time when I can appreciate it.

Curtayne, a native of Brigit`s Kildare, writes from the perspective of a devoted Irish Catholic. Grounded in Church and Irish history and the stories of Celtic saints, she is aware of the significant role Brigit plays in Ireland: “She stands in the first shaft of light that illuminates our history, literature, topography, art and architecture ... Her contemporaries re-named the landmarks, recast the whole topography of the island, in order that she should be remembered (pg 4-5).”

She touches on the limits and privileges of free women, then settles into the dark burden of the bond slave2, ending with a dramatic ushering in of St Brigit: “She stood isolated, without prototype, without peer (pg 9).” This reads at first like faith-driven hyperbole, and certainly faith plays a large part in her view of Brigit, but as the book unfolds she argues her case from a variety of materials, and the picture she paints is intriguing, filled with nuance and unexpected detail.

Curtayne clearly and extensively locates Brigit on the historical stage of her time. She explores the political climate of turbulence tempered with unity that then existed, particularly in the region of Ireland where she lived, outlining the struggle for territorial dominance between Leinster and the southern Ui Neill, the contention over the position of High King, and the backlash against a punitive tax levied on Leinster. “In striving to evoke the atmosphere of the fifth century, the reader must hear the clash of arms as the perpetual undertone to all other sounds (pg 16).” Some of her details may be arguable in light of modern research; nevertheless, situating her so clearly in her environment makes this an excellent introduction to and contemplation of Brigit and the world she emerged from.

She offers a glimpse of the lives of early Irish nuns, and knits together Patrick’s picture of Irish religious women with Brigit’s Lives as well as historical and mythic texts. She discusses how Brigit’s community might have looked, how building might have proceeded, what her chariot would have been like and how it would be to travel in it. She examines the Lives to learn of the character of the woman they depict, and finds much that I miss when reading the tales—her physical strength, for instance, as one who works hard in the dairy. The image of robust health and physical power that Curtayne envisions, so different from the assumption of beauty as slim elegance, gives us a homespun Irishwoman with acuity of mind and the confidence of an aristocrat. There is of course a taste of the good Catholic girl so familiar from Saints’ tales. But she is so much more than that here.

When she tells a tale from the Lives, Curtayne couches it in the background of the age: in discussing the ale references tittered at by moderns, she describes the role of ale, made fresh and weak and used as a common daily beverage, not a special drink to make men wobbly. In telling of her refusal of marriage, she lets us know clearly the privileged life—to a poet, that nobleman of the Celtic world—that Brigit was passing up. She ties together disparate bits of information—Brigit born a slave, daughter of a tribal leader: in attempting to wed her to a poet, he has in fact offered her the highest possible social position, and throughout her life she behaves as a woman who retains the power and self-assurance of her father’s class.

In telling Brigit’s stories this way, introducing ideas from ancient Ireland, such as regarding class or attitudes toward lepers, contrasting them with attitudes current in Biblical or modern times (the 1950s), and then personalizing the story, she gives often told and sometimes stilted stories new life. She reconnects them to a world and time other than our own and then imagines a human within them—how Brigit might have felt and why she reacted as she did. Finally, she will hint at, or carefully unfold, the symbolism or spiritual lesson she perceives there.

In approaching the material as if Brigit was a real and historical figure, and in dramatizing to great effect, she expands our understanding not only of the story and symbol of Brigit, but her place in the story of Ireland. Unique in my reading about Brigit is the revelation of her here as a source of pride and unity for a country whose people had for centuries been oppressed and despised. This message, which comes scattered in various forms throughout the book, is an important reminder. Brigit may be internationally loved and venerated now, but this is a new version of her, added to and subtracted from without our necessarily noticing. Placing her back into this setting is important both for our understanding of Brigit and for our honouring of her origins and the people who introduced us to her.

Curtayne's belief in God doesn't lead her to swallow everything that “pious hagiographers (pg 19)” have written. She seeks rational understanding while at the same time turning over the spiritual lessons found in Brigit's Lives. But she does accept that miracles happen. “The stories (of her generosity) ring true, because for the most part they are at once extraordinary and trivial. If a later biographer were minded to invent miracles for Brigid, he would use rather more imagination and tell of something more impressive than a little food conveyed furtively to a dog (pg 21).”

At times she struggles to make peace between her rigorous intellect and her faith. She says Patrick, having lived earlier than St Brigit, could not have known her. But in the Book of Armagh it is claimed otherwise. She accomodates this by saying that because of Brigit’s friendship with intimates of Patrick, it “may be taken as essentially true (pg 45).”

A little stretch of the truth is permitted elsewhere, too. “Not the faintest breath of scandal ever touched the double monastery founded by Brigid and Conlaeth (pg 63).” Now, it states clearly in the Liber Hymnorum that “She blessed the pregnant nun, she was whole without poison, without illness”. Perhaps this was some neighbouring nun, not of Kildare ... 3 Or perhaps this was not a scandal in Brigit’s day—it certainly doesn’t read like one in the tale.

Curtayne grounds Brigit to some extent in the mythology of her people. In telling the tale where Brigit gives away her father’s sword, she refers to the heroic sword given by a fairy queen which grew so long it touched the heavens like the curve of a rainbow. And she links Brigit directly to those heroes of old. “This strange creature, in whose veins flowed the blood of Conn of the Hundred Battles ... (pg 26)” This Brigit, though unapologetically Christian, becomes more truly Celtic and Pagan than many versions of the modern, reimagined goddess.

But she stops short of linking St Brigit directly to the goddess whose name she shares. While not denying the connection, she brushes it aside, refering in passing to “fearfully dull books” that suggest St Brigit was not a real woman, but only a product of the goddess (pg 109).

In so many ways, the Brigit in Curtayne’s book takes on life and character, and in doing so, allows the reader to connect more fully with her meaning in his or her life. To Curtayne, Brigit is not merely a symbol. Her miracles, some though not all, are real. Her envisioning of Brigit’s life surpasses even Kondratiev’s4 imaginings, and is founded on a broad knowledge of the Lives, her times, the Celts, the Bible, and the history of the Church.

We are given Brigit’s presence in Ireland and her effect on it, the building of communities, the hosting of intellectual circles surpassing anything in England or on the Continent of that time. A careful comparison between Celtic Christianity and the Christianity of St Francis5, insight into St Brigit’s reaction to the violence around her, with its parallels to the Troubles yet to come in Ireland, her examination of difficult spiritual truths6—Curtayne approaches her topic from a dizzying multitude of angles. In a rare moment of she writes: “But not to incur a charge of bathos, it would be better, perhaps, not to mention in the same breath with the Brigidine circle Madame Récamier’s salon, or the “intellectual afternoons” of Hannah More and George Eliot (pg 69).”

A rich offering indeed.

Saint Bride, Iain MacDonald (1992) , Floris Books. 64 pp.

This is a delightful little book with narrow and very precise aims. Being a Scottish publication, there is a little info in the short introduction on Brigit’s role outside of Ireland, and of course it uses Bride—the Scottish form of her name. The author suggests that the spread of her cult into Scotland and England may have been eased by the “parallel conversion and adoption” of the northern English goddess Brigantia. He attempts briefly to tease apart the elements of her myths which may have Pagan versus Christian origins, and to place her significance in early and modern times.

But the bulk of the book is committed to translations from medieval Irish manuscripts. The first and longest is a Life of Brigit from the Book of Lismore, which was apparently copied in turn during the 15th century from the now lost Book of Monasterboice and other manuscripts. MacDonald’s rendition is based on the translation by Whitely Stokes published in 1890. The second offering is a substantial 9th century prayer, “Hail Brigid”, found in the Book of Leinster. MacDonald’s version is modified from Kuno Meyer’s 1912 translation.

Lightweight, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, this is a wonderful introduction to the ecclesiastical Saint Brigit of latter days.

The Life of Saint Brigid, Anna Egan Smucker (2007), 71 pp. Appletree Press, Belfast.

When I first read of this book, I thought it was intended for children, a youth-level introduction to Saint Brigit. In fact, it’s aimed at adults, though it’s quite accessibly written and would be fine for interested tweens or young adults.

Smucker tells the story of the saint, not the goddess, but she doesn’t shy from Brigit’s goddess connection. While not going so far as to say the two are one, she says, “It is not surprising that underlying, and often mixing with the legends of the saint, is another story, the story of a goddess…The recounting of signs and wonders in the story of Saint Brigid has its own kind of truth, deeper than the literal. Perhaps it is not too great a stretch to imagine that the goddess would be pleased with her namesake…”

Unfortunately, this crumbles somewhat as the story of Brigit is introduced. I was sorry to read of an uncertain and worrying Pagan time into which the light of Christianity was carried, with its message of “love, forgiveness, and hope” (implying I guess that the new Christians div style=were unworried and that Pagans didn’t love, forgive, or hope). This is disappointing to find in an era of increasing inter-faith understanding. It was a framework given to Brigit’s story centuries ago in order to promote Christianity over the native Irish Paganism; the battle is long since won, but the framework unfortunately remains, and not only in Smucker’s work. Apart from this I like the book, which is well intended and beautiful, a brief, balanced, and well written introduction to Saint Brigit’s story and traditions.

The main substance of the text is a retelling of the story of Brigit, drawn mainly from the 15th century Leabhar Breac, or Speckled Book, of Ballymacegan, Tipperary, where the author’s family hails from. The story is reduced in volume and streamlined into a pleasant fictional account. She has a light touch and clear, relaxed style. The characters have been rounded out; we can appreciate their feelings and motivations as we follow Brigit’s adventures from childhood to old age.

One quibble: she says that researchers have dated the “fire temple” at Kildare to pre-Christian times, and asserts that priestesses probably tended the flame there. This is not my understanding. Rather, the date of the so-called fire temple is much later and it isn’t certain it was actually used as a fire temple at all. (Recall that the first actual mention of a perpetual flame in Kildare comes with Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century.) It seems unlikely to me that it was ever used as such by the pre-Christian people of the era. I will be discussing this more fully in my review of Kondratiev’s chapter on Imbolc in the next review posting: Nonfiction Popular (Neopagan). I trust that if you have evidence to the contrary—perhaps the research on the fire temple date the Smucker refers to—you’ll fill me in. I’d love to be proven wrong.

Smucker emphasizes Brigit’s interest in freeing slaves, her piety, her generosity, and her compassionate, healing miracles. Episodes presented include Brigit turning well water to ale for a sick travelling companion; her consecration as a bishop and transformation of a dry altar beam to fresh green wood with her touch; several examples of her intervention on the part of prisoners and the condemned; the distress of Brigit’s nuns at her constant giving away of the community’s wealth. “To trust as she did that God would provide must have been one of the great challenges of Brigid’s community (pg 27).”

As I read Smucker’s retelling of Brigit’s story, I sense that she shares Brigit’s very Celtic affection not only for God and people, but for the creatures of land, sea, and sky.

Like the vita her story is based on, Smucker’s retelling is an evocation, not to be taken as history. At one point she has a scribe jot down a verse which Smucker then quotes. But of course the earliest of Brigit’s stories were written down a century or more after her death; it is poetic license to have the verse appear here. Such license is used sparingly and to good effect, but it should be noted.

The story is followed by a sampling of folk traditions, customs, and prayers. These are carefully selected from a number of sources and are thoughtfully presented. Illustrated instructions for making a Brigit’s cross round out what is a very nice little introduction to Saint Brigit.

The book benefits greatly from the art of Ann McDuff. Yet there is no artist’s statement or bio, and her name is found only by searching the tiny print on the CIP page. Tsk, tsk, Appletree Press! (Though also, congratulations for finding and including her wonderful art in such profusion.) It’s strange to me that even today artists may receive slight recognition for their contributions to books – especially in a book that relies heavily on that contribution.

McDuff’s paintings set the tone here – stunning flyleafs, nine full colour, full page illustrations, out of the book’s total of seventy-one pages, and a number of smaller colour pieces embedded in the text. They are intricate and lush with expression, hue, and meaning, icons in the style of stained glass that lend great life to the book and tempt one to read the text. Oddly, though, McDuff’s painting of “the Celtic Goddess Brigid” looks like three Christian angels, winged, robed, with eyes downcast. There’s nothing Pagan, divine, or even Celtic about it.

Of necessity a short and focussed work, there is room for only a small part of the whole story of Brigit; Smucker and McDuff have done a fine job of creating an attractive, informative, and appealing primer on the saint.

Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women’s Spirituality, Noragh Jones (1994) Floris Books, Edinburgh. 238 pp.

Although Brigit is not the focus of this book, it is a celebration of the traditional life of Celtic women and as such touches generously on the role of Brigit in work and blessings. Lending a deeper understanding of her from the standpoint of a Christianity that rests firmly on Pagan precedent, it is an illuminating and inspiring book, with its sensibility of Celtic ways, and its store of traditional blessings, many of which are drawn from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica.

A brief quote may whet your appetite. From the chapter “Woman of the house”:

“In the usual way of things the ordinary household would have only one or two cows, and they would be taken out to pasture in the morning and brought back in again for the evening milking. But however few or many, the herd would be put under the daily safeguarding of St Brigid, for she was regarded as a kind of divine milkmaid among her many other attributes. She was the one to give them protection and to bless them with fertility, if her aid was summoned (pg 33).”

Rekindling the Flame: a Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Brigid of Kildare, Rita Minehan CSB. Solas Bhríde Community, 1999. 64 pp. (Pilgrimage Guidebook; Guided Meditation)

The stones of this cathedral hold the memories of prayer and worship by people for centuries. Allow time to connect with those who worshipped in this sacred place.”
pg 23

To watch water gently springing from the earth is to witness creation in
an act of unconditional generosity. This holy well can be a symbol of the source of life within, from which spring hopes and dreams.”
This is a lovely book. Written by the Irish Brigidine nun Rita Minehan it is a guidebook to the sites sacred to Brigit in the immediate area of Kildare, where the saint built her greatest community. She leads you from cathedral to high cross, to round tower, fire temple, church, wells, and prayer stones. She goes on to discuss a fascinating variety of other features the unprepared visitor or uninformed resident could easily miss. Giving descriptions and historical information, maps, directions, and walking distances, she brings also a sense of reverence and contemplation, and the pages are dotted with photos and prayers. If you are planning a trip to Kildare, this book is a very worthwhile companion. Although there is no index—not really a surprise in a book this small—she uses clear and frequent footnotes.

I have heard a number of tales of who first relit the flame of Brigit in Kildare in 1993. Rita Minehan settles the question in her acknowledgement of then leader of the Brigidine nuns, Mary Teresa Cullen, for relighting the flame and Srs Mary Minehan and Phil O’Shea for “being the creative women they are, for forging new pathways and awakening us to our ancient Celtic heritage in Kildare.”

The first paragraph of the book proper sets the scene. We are invited onto a pilgrimage—to feel and experience and be transformed. Though facts are provided, they are merely the handrails we grasp on our journey into a spiritual realm. Her emphasis is not only on personal enlightenment, but also on learning compassion and generosity—capacities featured throughout the Lives of Saint Brigit—and reminds us in quoting AFRI7 that we “belong to one family under God, our Father and our Mother (pg 29).”

Regarding pilgrimage, she explains:

It is said that all pilgrimages spring from a deep yearning for an encounter with the divine. This yearning draws people to special places associated with the divine—whatever their faith—and is also associated with the needs and the prayers of the individual pilgrim making the journey.

Pilgrimage is so much different from the journey undertaken by the tourist or the ordinary traveller, it also involves risk, possibility and invitation. It invites change. The risk is partly the possibility that the pilgrim will not return as the same person who set out ...

In order to be true pilgrims we need to be sure that things which are not really so important don’t get in the way ... To grow into the new millenium as pilgrims is undoubteldy one of the most exciting challenges facing us. What would it mean to truly see this journey as a pilgrimage (pg 32-33)?”

Where Alice Curtayne has little patience for exploring the goddess roots of Saint Brigit, like Seán Ó Duinn8, Minehan embraces both while remaining clearly Christian: “St Brigid stands at the meeting of two worlds. Neither the boundaries of Christianity nor the older beliefs can contain her exclusively (pg 12).” She does not reject the suggestion that priestesses tended the flame before nuns. (I will be discussing this more fully in my review of Kondratiev’s chapter on Imbolc in the next review posting: Nonfiction Popular (Neopagan).)

Minehan mentions that the name of the Brigidine sisters’ Kildare community house, Solas Bhride, means Brigit’s Light (pg 14). It’s interesting that it is her illuminative capacity, not her connection to fire or dairy or rush crosses, for instance, that is chosen as the focus of the order’s home. For Brigit’s stories and traditions do indeed have a great capacity to shine a light on our understanding of ourselves and each other.

She includes a ritual for St Brigid’s Well and Prayer Stones which leads us to meditations on Brigit as Woman of the Land, Peacemaker, Friend of the Poor, Hearthwoman, Woman of Contemplation.

Brigit, Minehan tells us, is “emerging once again at a time of transition in the universe (pg 54). This book is one of the valuable guides to tapping in to her emergence here, and allowing it to inform our own lives and goals.

Solas Bhride Prayer
Kildare, Ireland, 1997

Brigid, you were a woman of peace,
you brought harmony where there was conflict.
You brought light into the darkness.
You brought hope to the downcast.
May the mantle of your peace
cover those who are troubled and anxious,
and may peace be firmly rooted in the world.
Inspire us to act justly and reverence all God has made.
Brigid, you were a voice for the wounded and the weary.
Strengthen what is weak within us.
Calm us into a quietness that heals and listens.
May we grow each day into greater
wholeness in mind, body and spirit.


1From The Book of Saints and Wonders (1906). This was the only other substantial piece of writing about Brigit available to me at that time.
2Whether her description of the traumas experienced by Irish slaves was based on Irish evidence or on African accounts isn`t clear, but it offers a moment of vivid contemplation. Brigit and her mother were slaves. What would their lives have been like?
3Whitley Stokes, Goidelica: Old and Early-middle-Irish Glosses, Prose and Verse (1872), 142-6.
4See my review of Kondratiev’s chapter on Imbolc in the next review posting: Nonfiction, Popular (Neopagan).
5She goes so far as to suggest that St Francis may have gotten his inspiration from the Celtic Christians then present in Italy (pg 100). Interestingly, she notes that Italy is devoted to St Brigit of Ireland in the north and St Brigit of Sweden in the south (pg 114).
6For example, she uses the story of Brigit’s confusing the brothers who meant to do battle with each other to illustrate “this hardest lesson of Christianity: that the greatest renunciation is the renunciation of revenge ... (pg 97)”
7AFRI: Action From Ireland
8See my review of his book The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, in the upcoming posting: Nonfiction, Academic/Popular Academic

No comments: